If you hear people talk about Zellige (pronounced zill-eejh) tile you might be curious to know what hey mean. Zellige is a specific type of terracotta tile that originated in Morocco.
Moroccan Zellige tiles are so different from other types of tile that a word had to be created especially for it, namely the Arabic word الزلي, zellige or zellij which means “tile.”
Specifically, Zellige is mosaic tilework made from individually chiseled geometric tiles set into a plaster base. The interlocking edges or “teeth” is what keeps the intricate patterns intact when repeated on larger surfaces.
Today Zellige primarily refers to traditional glazed, cut terracotta tiles from Fez, the ancient city of mosaics. The unique clay from this region is primarily composed of Kaolinite.
Do you know? Regions with more sandy soil produce cement tiles instead of terracotta tiles. The unique clay used for Zellige is what makes it possible to be cut and shaped by hand.
Zellige are made by hand. They are hand-chipped and hand-glazed. Forms / tiles are made from the Fez clay and dried in the sun. Then, they are treated with a colored glaze and baked in wood kiln ovens. Zellige tiles are prized for their natural variations in surface texture and color. Each tile is authentic in it’s craftsmanship and sense of history.
Zellige tiles come in a whole range of rich, deep colors, but they can also be very beautiful in neutrals. Several factors are responsible for creating the range of shades each color comes in: mineral pigments, the sun, and the human element. Depending upon where each glazed piece is placed within the kiln, they will have different tonalities, as they may have received more or less heat intensity, this is its main sign of identity.
Zellige is unique in that it is shaped after glazing. Artisans trace out the shapes they want and carefully chiseled and chipped into shapes from the glazed tile blanks. The edges are back beveled to allow the tiles to butt together. When installed correctly, the mosaic tiles create a seamless look, where grout lines and joints become indistinguishable.
Unique shapes and sizes
Zelliges are typically only suitable for walls. A thicker tile version, called a Bejmat is usually specified for floors. The most common shape for a Bejmat is a rectangle or subway tile shape. All Zellige are hand chiseled to size – this creates obvious size variation which is part of the tile’s appeal.
Clay tile is good insulator, providing passive cooling in summer and retaining ambient heat in winter. Natural clay tile is fireproof, so it does not burn at any temperature or release toxic fumes.
Before installing, Zellige tile is soaked in water, otherwise it is too dry to glue. It’s best to use an installer familiar with Zellige and Bejmat tile for the best outcome.
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